The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Thirty Years Since the Berlin Wall Fell 9th November 2019

 

 

 

 

That symbol of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain the Berlin Wall came down in dramatic fashion thirty years ago today. It hasn’t all been smooth sailing since, and there are those who might argue that you knew where you were when it was still dividing West from East. It remains inspirational to generations of writers and artists and filmmakers, forever embedded in celluloid not just as a dramatic device but as a reminder of authoritarianism, war and oppression.

Against All Flags (1952)

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I don’t like the cut of your sail!  In 1700 British officer Lt Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn) on the British ship Monsoon infiltrates a group of pirates led by Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn) located on Libertatia on the coast of the island of Madagascar  He poses as a deserter and falls in love with pirate captain ‘Spitfire’ Stevens (Maureen O’Hara). He proves his worth and is aboard Brasiliano’s vessel when they loot a Moghul ship and kidnap a harem of women protected by their chaperone Molvina MacGregor (Mildred Natwick) who hides the identity of Princess Patma (Alice Kelley). Meanwhile, Hawke is gathering information through his romance with Spitfire to attack the pirate base …  You’re a real rooster, aren’t you!  Nobody is who they claim to be here in a movie that’s full of rousing action, furious innuendo and Taming of the Shrew-ishness. O’Sullivan is resplendent as the pirate queen and Flynn gets one of his last good action roles (and his final pirate part in Hollywood) although a life of excess had already taken a toll on his glorious looks. They have great fun knocking sparks off each other, particularly when he’s training her to be a lady and instructing her in etiquette. The moment when O’Hara, all decked out in her piratical duds, outbids Flynn for Kelley at a slave auction and says to Flynn, I think I prefer you as a bachelor is just a preview of coming attractions:  she then pulls back the girl’s veil, sees how beautiful her new possession is and observes to Flynn, Curse me if I can blame you too much! One for a queer film compilation for sure. Written by Aeneas MacKenzie as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. it was then rewritten by Joseph Hoffman, and directed for the most part by George Sherman but when Flynn broke his ankle production was postponed, Sherman moved on and Douglas Sirk took over a further ten days’ filming upon Flynn’s eventual return. It looks stunning thanks to Russell Metty and Hans Salter handles the boisterous score. Lambasted by the critics, this made a shedload of money in its time. When he comes back with blood on his hands then he can hoist his own black flag but not before!

Dark Journey (1937)

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Not bad but you need to practise. World War I is in full thrust, but Swedish fashion store clerk Madeleine Goddard (Vivien Leigh) has apparently not aligned herself with either side. When she meets German soldier Karl Von Marwitz (Conrad Veidt), she falls in love. Karl, who presents himself as a footman of low rank and supposedly disgraced officer, is in fact a high-ranking official in the German army and an aristocrat. Madeleine has secrets of her own – she is a spy and double agent, working for the Allies in a bid to uncover the new head of the German Secret Service in Stockholm. As Madeleine and Karl are pulled deeper into the escalating war, their love may be the thing that saves their lives but when her German co-conspirator Anatole (Eliot Makeham) is murdered events overtake them and their identities might just prove their undoing ... Is it a crime to be German?/It’s worse, it’s a vulgarity. This pre-WW2 drama is prescient, pacifist and fence-sitting, all at once, a notably atmospheric tale of spy/counter-spy in a Stockholm that presents rather like a certain Moroccan destination would five years later.  Leigh is inscrutable to the point of roboticism at first, then suave ladykiller Veidt comes along and she’s even more attractive than that saucy minx Brazilian socialite Lupita (Joan Gardner, wife of Zoltan Korda, uncredited producer Alexander’s brother) who seems permanently up for it. With maps, submarines, pips on the radio, coded messages on the fabric held up against lamplight and fog dappling the harbour, it’s a very attractive concoction with a terrific ensemble cast that includes Ursula Jeans, Cecil Parker and Robert Newton as a U-boat officer. With a screenplay by Lajos Biró and scenario and dialogue by Arthur Wimperis, this is assisted by nicely graduated greys and soft whites in the cinematography which was carried out at Denham Studios on splendid sets designed by Andrej Andrejew, and enhanced by a suitably suspenseful score by Richard Addinsell conducted by Muir Mathieson. Naturally, the costumes by René Hubert are rather fabulous. Directed by Victor Saville. It’s easy to touch your pocket, it’s difficult to touch your heart

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

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Information is everything  – the currency, the power. Young United Nations employee Michael Soussan (Theo James) has left his lucrative job at a bank because he wants to follow in his late diplomat father’s footsteps and travels to Iraq with his mentor Under-Secretary-General Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris (Ben Kingsley), who is going to show him how successful the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme has been. When Michael gets a deeper look at the organisation on the ground he listens to the concerns of local UN diplomat Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) and unveils a corruption conspiracy in which officials both inside and outside of the UN are skimming billions off the top of the aid meant for the Iraqi people. When he meets UN worker (and secret Kurdish activist) Nashim (Bilçim Bilgin) and she informs him his predecessor was murdered, he finds his head being turned yet he wants to do the right thing … There was nobody left who knew how to run the countryPitched as a political thriller, this reeks of the great Seventies paranoid conspiracy stories that Pakula and Pollack made so much their own – and even concludes in a visit to the Wall Street Journal, conjuring images of Robert Redford in his own cat and mouse chase. However this whistleblower drama is a bigger story with the bad guys less easy to identify simply because there are so many of them – thousands of global companies, some household brands, bribing Saddam Hussein, and, as we might recall from the news of 15 years ago, revolved around the United Nations. So basically everything we know is right – they’re all at it, as the overly truthful title indicates. Graft is good. Our shoulder-shrugging dismay is sealed by intermittent montages of newsreel, reminding us that we are watching, as it were, a true story, while some of the ensemble get killed in car bombs as Iraq is carved up by vested interests. Kingsley, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines and this performance is meat and drink to him. James is more diffuse as the good guy constantly stunned into submission by the realisation that corruption is a way of life and he still scrabbles to do whatever is right, whatever that might be, at any given time as the tables are constantly turned on him in this story of a naïf’s progress.  Adapted from Soussan’s memoir by director Per Fly (isn’t that the best name ever?!) and Daniel Pyne. Admirable but not wholly effective.  What you call corruption is simply the growing pains of a new democracy

 

The Wrecking Crew (1968)

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Faster! You’re an awful driver! Matt Helm (Dean Martin) is assigned by his secret agency, ICE, to bring down an evil count named Contini (Guy Green) who is trying to collapse the world economy by stealing a billion dollars in gold. Helm travels to Denmark, where he is given a guide, Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate)  a beautiful but bumbling woman from a Danish tourism bureau. Two of Contini’s accomplices, the seductive Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer) and Yu-Rang (Nancy Kwan) each attempt to foil Helm’s plans. The former is killed in an ambush intended for Helm, the latter in an explosion. On each occasion, Freya’s clumsy attempts to assist Matt are helpful, but not particularly appreciated…  My hat’s not broken! Dean Martin returns in the fourth (and final big-screen) outing for Donald Hamilton’s spy, taken out of retirement. It’s all day-glo, great locations and slapstick with Tate an utter joy as the klutz, a Stella Stevens role in the original The Silencers, with her girlfight opposite Nancy Kwan a particular highlight (and as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood acknowledges, Bruce Lee was her martial arts trainer). Dino makes out to his own songs – asking Elke when she wants her dress zipped, Which way – up or down?  – there’s a runaway train with the bullion, combat scenes galore and lots of bombs. Go-go boots ahoy for groovy girls and boys! Directed by Phil Karlson, making a welcome return to the series. Screenplay by William P. McGivern. If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleepin’ with your uncle Fred

The Spy in Black (1939)

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Aka U-Boat 29. Who’d be a U-boat captain? A German submarine under the command of Captain Hardt (Conrad Veidt) is sent to Hoy in the Orkney Islands in 1917 in order to determine British fleet movements around Scapa Flow where he is supposedly helped by The School Teacher (Valerie Hobson) assisted by disgraced British Naval Lt. Ashington (Sebastian Shaw).  However they are double agents who actually want Hardt to bring together many U-boats for the attack on the Grand Fleet and then have a destroyer flotilla wipe out the U-boats with depth charges. The arrival of the original schoolteacher’s fiancé (Cyril Raymond) complicates matters …What an idea, putting a motorbike in a submarine. From Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, brought together for the first time by Alexander Korda, armed with a scenario by Roland Pertwee (Jon’s dad) adapted from Joseph Storer Clouston’s novel, and the best German ever, Conrad Veidt (loved him since Terry Wogan used to play his Lighthouse song at the crack of doom), this World War One tale has all the best aspects of that new collaboration – an exciting premise, taut plotting, attractive characters and a great setting, these islands off Scotland. The early kidnapping of schoolteacher Anne Burnett (June Duprez) in a scene reminiscent of The Lady Vanishes, Hobson as a sort of femme fatale, the sight of Veidt with his big eyes and goggles and motorsickle leathers among the sheep, the fog shrouding night time action, witty banter, romantic betrayal, spy and counter-spy, memorable shot after memorable shot – all combine to make this much more than a propaganda film – it was released on the eve of World War Two (in August 1939). It’s a hugely entertaining and well-turned thriller that’s just bursting with atmosphere and irony because who wouldn’t begrudge Veidt? And yet, and yet … You almost persuade me to become a British subject

Otley (1968)

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If they are the cowboys we’re supposed to be the Indians. Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) is a petty crook and wannabe antique dealer mistaken for a British secret agent when he sleeps on a couch belonging to his friend Eric Lambert (Edward Hardwicke) who’s really a suspected influence pedlar and document smuggler and who is found murdered while Otley wakes up two days on the runway at Gatwick. Otley trails double agents and double martinis at a posh cocktail party before discovering the villains have the cooperation of top government officials. He’s pegged to pose as a possible defector to oust the criminal mastermind who plans to sell stolen documents vital to national security to any enemy agent with the most money. British secret agent Imogen (Romy Schneider) first has Otley beaten up by her thugs before combining forces to go after the real villains …  I was last year’s winner of the Duke of Edinburgh Award for Lethargy. Directed by Dick Clement and co-written with his regular collaborator Ian La Frenais, this adaptation of a novel by Northern Irish author Martin Waddell is funny and characterful, laced with real wit and a bright British cast including James Bolam (from Clement and La Frenais’ The Likely Lads), Alan Badel as MI5 overlord Hadrian, James Villiers as the resurrecting spy Hendrickson, Phyllida Law (Emma Thompson’s mum and you can see the shared mannerisms), Geoffrey Bayldon as a police superintendent, Freddie Jones as an epicene gallerist, the dulcet tones of radio DJs Pete Murray and Jimmy Young, and Leonard Rossiter – as a hitman! Great mileage is got out of the mistaken identity scenario, everyone changing sides constantly, with Courtenay wonderfully charismatic as the feckless cheeky chappie protagonist street trader in way over his head between teams of rival spies who believe everyone has a price, while Schneider has fun as the perky intelligence agent. With fantastic location shooting (by Austin Dempster), the action scenes are atypical of the spy genre although the golf course sequence will remind you of a certain Bond movie, a titles sequence in Portobello Road market shows uncooperative shoppers staring into the camera as it tracks back from Courtenay strolling among the stalls and shops, there’s a rumble among the houseboats at Cheyne Walk, a sequence at the Playboy Club and a disastrous driving test that turns into a nutty car chase. This comic approach to the wrong man spy thriller is uniquely entertaining. Damian Harris, Robin Askwith and Kenneth Cranham play kids and the music and theme song are by Stanley Myers. I’m Gerard Arthur Otley and I’ve had enough

The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves